Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle ” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”
Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.
One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.
I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.
As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.
I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew myself off with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.
Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.
As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.
After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.
I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”
He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.
One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.
I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.
It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.
I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.
I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.
Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:
Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:
It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.
Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.
I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.
So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.
When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.
I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.
George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.
Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.
Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.
So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her through across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.
When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.
To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I let the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.
Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….
There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.
I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.
I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.
But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.
Originally Posted May 18, 2013. I added an interesting fact about George and the comments from the original post and from last year:
George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979. His last name is pronounced “Pep-Lee”. A chemist plays an important role in a power plant. The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system. The chemist spends their time with these activities. They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things. Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water. As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor. No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop). We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both. He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him. To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:
One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides. This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company. As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.
When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice. Like this: “PaulMullonLineOne. PaulMullonLineOne.”
Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig. In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true. The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and I am writing now), and then I was going to write about them. In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life. Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“). Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person. His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life. If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.
Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom. We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage. While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do. If you are not number one, then you are nobody. No one remembers who came in second. He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition. It was him against everyone else. He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them. According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana. He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man. He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore. Like a lumber Jack.
As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”. Which no one else in the shop seemed to have. He had been certified or something as a Millwright. Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs. Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc. I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox. Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred. Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.” Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying. That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.
Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.
It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring. That gave me more time to learn about Gary. He filled the time with stories about his past and his family. Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share. In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.
During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online. This is called doing a “check out” of the unit. The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay. The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.
Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit. When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us. The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line. Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal. He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange. He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.
Anyway. When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on. After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on. When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.
Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump. I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down. In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“). If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment. Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought). His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone. I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again. He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.
After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.
I made a mental note to myself. — Always remember the o-ring.
Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again. When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found. When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off. Which is a way of saying… “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.” George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant. He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD! When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”. When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say). I will leave you with that thought.
Comments from the original post:
neenergyobserver May 18, 2012
Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.
onelifethislife May 27, 2012
You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.
bryanneelaine May 28, 2012
LOL @ “Dinty Moore”